A Travellerspoint blog

I'll Be Home For Christmas...

If only in my dreams...

semi-overcast
View Around Asia 2011 to ? on TravelerTyler's travel map.

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“I'll be home for Christmas...”

The song had unexpectedly entered my mind one October day while I peacefully sat on the balcony of The Hump Hostel in Kunming, watching as an airplane flew across the partly cloudy skies overhead.

“...If only in my dreams,” I sung to myself, with a smile.

I had been traveling solo for nearly a year, and although my cash reserves were dwindling down ever closer to the action-inspiring “I'm broke” mark, I didn't feel ready to come home yet, and I was planning to find a job teaching English in one of the nearby countries in the near future, so as to extend my travels out at least another year or more.

Traveling through Asia on my own was, up until that time, one of the funnest parts of my life, and I was looking for any way I could find to extend the trip longer. Teaching would give me a chance to see what it was like to experience another side of Asia; a working life rather than the free-floating lifestyle that backpacking gave me. It would expose me to more diversity, help me to appreciate and understand the world more fully, and I would gain valuable skills as a teacher and as a communicator. I also figured that while teaching, I could save up enough money to go back to India after I was done, and take some mountaineering courses on the cheap at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, in Darjeeling. Also, I dreamed that I could get down to the business of creating some sort of a book or online product during my extended time abroad, which would facilitate more financial freedom and more fun-loving travel awesomeness!

As far as I was concerned, this was a great plan, and it felt hugely ambitious, and so I was super excited to take on this next great string of challenges! I would have to play my cards smartly to pull it all off smoothly, but I had all the confidence in the world that I could do it. I had, after all, over the last several months, thrown myself into all manner of adventures, from rigorous trekking through the Himalayas to witness Mt. Everest, to exploring two Nepalese jungles on foot searching for tigers, rhinos, and elephants. From sitting for ten days in silent stillness learning Vipassana meditation, to allowing life to unfold a larger meditation through my writings over as many months as I had been on the road. From forming deep companionship with fellow travelers, to finding wonderful friendships with locals I had met along the way. I had traveled though dozens of strange and evocative places, and managed nearly everything about my trip on my own, with little issue other than the occasional computer virus or stomach bug, and so I wasn't afraid to find that teaching job, even though I didn't know how I was going to do it!

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But one month after that Christmas song played in my head, I decided it wouldn't hurt to ponder the question, “What if it is time to go home?”

It felt almost sacrilegious to even consider breaking from my determined focus and open up this “what if” door. What if it inspired some weakness in me, and I gave up on the challenge ahead? What if I dithered too much in my considerations and ate up precious time contemplating my options, when I should be researching schools to teach at or finding out which certifications I needed? I was wary of my own capacity to second-guess myself out of doing something I truly wanted. But I decided to reconsider anyhow.

Kunming has a collection of Starbucks coffee shops around town, and I went to one to reflect on Seattle, over a mocha. I figured it would connect me to home in some way that sitting around at the hostel wouldn't. During my time abroad, I did my very best to stay away from American chains like this, so that I could experience the flavors of the country I was in; but this was a suitable occasion to break from that rule. Despite the fact that Starbucks in China seems to be more expensive than back home, and that a mocha cost me nearly one quarter of my daily budget, I came here for three days as I went back and forth with myself over the pull to return home, or the chance of a lifetime to find work locally and carry on for another year or two.

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I have better come to understand, in the years since I left Kunming, that there is a difference between taking on the thrilling challenges of climbing a mountain, and deciding whether or not it is even the right mountain to climb to begin with. But back then, a good portion of my inspiration for traveling solo, was to test myself, and to really feel into what I am truly capable of. From this, I would build up my confidence to take on the pathways in life that truly matter to me. And so, knowing that I might cheat myself out of a good adventure, in order to indulge in comforts, I was often wary of choosing an easy path forward.

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However, another purpose of my travels was to better learn how to listen carefully to my deepest knowing, and from that place within, move faithfully. On these travels, the wild and adventurous path that I had longed for while I was still at home, didn't always happen because I was pushing myself as hard as I could. Sometimes, it came by stopping. Other times, it came by moving slow. Or doing something that was actually fairly easy, like hanging out in my hotel for a week and reading and watching the world go by. Or like sitting around, drinking coffee. Life is mysterious, and all the planning and challenging myself in the world, could only take me so far. And so, after three days of Starbucks meditations, along with the mochas sloshing around in my stomach, in my gut, I knew it was time to go home...

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Excited and relieved that I would soon be reuniting with friends and family, but wistful about leaving the enticements of Asia behind, I set myself to finding a flight home, and to making preparations to wrap up my trip. Thanksgiving was just around the corner, and airfares shot up so high, so fast, that I decided to add one last country: Vietnam, to my itinerary instead. After securing a Vietnamese visa, I booked a cheap flight out from Hanoi to Seoul to Tokyo to Seattle, and my course was set. I took the remaining three weeks until that time to fill my hours with gratitude, and reflect on all the adventures, friendships, and wonderful moments I had lived through, during these challenging, yet amazing thirteen months across India, Nepal, China, and finally Vietnam. When I arrived back home, on December 6th, it was just in time to surprise my extended family a few days later, at the first Christmas party of the season.

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Posted by TravelerTyler 15:42 Archived in China Tagged home vietnam china christmas seattle coffee starbucks kunming return deciding Comments (1)

The Everest Chronicles Part the Sixth

A Good Match for a Long March

semi-overcast 17 °C

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When I look back over the first five parts of these Chronicles, I am loosely reminded of the five components of a project life cycle that I once learned while studying project management. The first story captures the initiation and some of the pre-planning that it took to get up into the mountains. The second story addresses specific gear that I was using and needed to buy, plus the slow pace I wanted from the outset of the trek. The third story was about getting going. The fourth, about monitoring and controlling our progress as I was feeling concerns about altitude sickness. And the fifth, about closing out the day and satisfying our expectations and needs with a good bed and a good night's sleep.

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While I won't say that Adrian was entirely unprepared for the trek ahead, of the two of us, I was definitely the one running the management show. I bought the trail map he didn't think we would need. I marked out our projected daily trek and lodging, on said map. I pre-checked the weather reports for Everest before getting on the plane. I made sure that we had enough quality food to cover lunches before leaving. I spent the first evening double-checking our projected costs vs. our cash on hand. I made sure that we had all the gear we might need for the higher elevations. And I addressed the safety concerns that I had about climbing over Cho-La Pass, which we had decided on as a likely side trip. Much of this, he felt was unnecessary. He wanted to go to Everest, and he was just going to do it.

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I heard a story from a high-alpine skier friend, about some of the Indian Sadhus, who would head off to meditate in the Himalayas. The sadhus already have cast off the trappings of normal life, in order to live spiritually and free of attachments. No house; no family; no career; and usually, no money other than alms. The regional spiritual culture is full of examples of holy men who spend years meditating in some very extreme ways. Buddha sat in a cave for six years, or so the story goes. Sadhu Amar Bharati has kept his right arm raised over his head for forty years, in devotion to Shiva. He has inspired several other Shiva-worshippers to keep their hands raised as well; some reports say as much as seven, thirteen, and even twenty-five years. Many sadhus are used to going where they please and following their urges to endurance meditate, however it occurs to them. Some head off into the mountains during the summer and find a good place to sit down into a deep meditative repose. The next year, after the snows thaw out, their corpses are discovered where they froze to death.

I admire the spirit that chooses something crazy and difficult and just does it. As one teacher of mine put it, “Fanatics are the only ones who get anything done in this world.” Take climbing Mt. Everest for example. Only someone with a fanatical spirit is going to make it to the summit, let alone attempt it in the first place. But there have been plenty of fanatics that have attempted to make their way to the top, only to get themselves killed along the way. Fanaticism alone, is not enough. The climbers who make it to the peak and back safely, are almost always the ones that are part of a team with very strong organizational skills, discipline, and experience. And even this is no guarantee.

Trekking to Everest Base Camp is by no means on the same level as climbing the mountain itself. But it still involves heading out into the Himalayan wilderness for two weeks or longer. The atmosphere is thin. It is below freezing at night. It is still snowing in May. Base camp is at 17,598 feet, on a glacier; which is more than high enough to die from altitude sickness or exposure. Fog, high winds, and blizzards pass through the mountain valleys. Avalanches and rockfall are regularly set off. Narrow footpaths sometimes skirt dangerously high cliffs and glacial crevasses. One wrong step could mean a bath in a glacial stream or ice-choked pool, with the nearest settlement hours away. And though there are places to stay and eat along the route, they aren't much good to a person who fails to ration their cash supply. One doesn't find too many ATMs high in the Himalayas.

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So, much as I admired Adrian's determination, and the worthwhile preparations that he actually did do, I was far from satisfied with leaving it alone at that. And while he slept early on that first night, I stayed up pouring over logistics. On the next day, we would be heading up to Namche Bazaar, which is the best place to stock up on last-minute supplies, and the only chance to get some cash from a bank. And by my calculations, Adrian hadn't taken out enough cash in Kathmandu to see him all the way through the trek. Nor had I correctly estimated the number of uses I could expect out of my water-purifying SteriPEN, and we needed more batteries, or else our budget would get decimated by 3-to-5-dollars a liter bottled water, or risk a giardia or amoeba infection from the mountain streams. And we really could stand to pack some more food. You just never know.

*****

The next morning, after settling our debate over whether or not to stay in Manjo an extra night with a coin toss, and a delicious breakfast of Tibetan Bread and Honey, Tsampa Porridge, and a mug of “Hot Grape” (Tang), we bid farewell to our comforts, and set off for Namche Bazaar. At the edge of town, we stopped in the Park Management Office to show our trekking permits and buy Sagamartha National Park passes. I took my time pouring over informational posters showing park data, maps, conservation tips, history, and medical precautions. Tourism is on the rise in the park, with some 30,000 people visiting annually from around the world. But May is the beginning of the off-season, and the numbers fall as sharply as a Himalayan mountainside.

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We would have the trails more to ourselves than during peak season, but not just yet. The path was busy here, with porters and yaks carrying loads from Lukla to the markets in Namche Bazaar. Adrian counted porters and I counted yaks, as we went, to see which there was more of, and bet each other on who would count higher. We trekked with no guide or porters, and carried our own supplies, having left all non-essential belongings in a lock-up back in Kathmandu. I had spent the last year before my travels, working as a delivery manager, carrying doors and millwork up the stairs and down the halls of large apartment buildings, all over Seattle. It was excellent conditioning for this trek, and I was in good command of my body as I walked. I gave my trekking poles to Adrian, as his foot had blistered the night before, his knees were starting to ache, and he wasn't used to the rigors of carrying something on his back 8 hours a day.

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Whereas management was one of my strong suits, Adrian was good at medicine. The night before, he asked me to sterilize my knife blade in the teahouse fire, and expertly used it to drain his blister. It was now reduced to insignificance. He had the foresight to put us both on the recommended dose of altitude sickness medicine, Diamox, the night before we flew out of Kathmandu, and over the first two days of our trek, as we had risen several thousand feet in one day. He monitored the symptoms of my headachy 1st day jitters, and had me drink water at regular intervals. And it made me feel more relaxed, knowing that my trekking companion was a competent nurse. I may have wilderness first aid training, and I have developed a rich discipline of using my body consciously and paying attention to the environment; but if something were to go medically wrong up on the trails, Adrian surely would be the one running the show. Unless he was frozen into unconsciousness...

Even though I was a bit wary of what I felt was under-preparation on Adrian's part, and Adrian felt that I was over-managing the small things, the two of us were getting used to each other fast. We both talked through our differences openly and thoughtfully. Adrian wears his heart on his sleeve, as do I, and between the two of us, no topic was off limits. We made fun of each other, which was easy for me, since Adrian is short, bald, and speaks in a New York Jewish accent, and it was easy for him, since he is short, bald, and Jewish, and has probably heard a lot of jokes! I would often walk faster than he did, stopping to let him catch up, or lagging behind, knowing that I would catch up myself, but Adrian had a steady pace that I appreciated and would sometimes find myself left farther behind than expected.

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Everest and the sojourn surrounding it, was for both of us, our Ultima Thule; a journey intended to strip our souls bare; to pull away the shackles of false self, push beyond the limits of our known fears, comforts, and the expectations of life that one might easily adopt as a ready-made-package from the world one grows up in; and hopefully, find the raw edges of what truly matters in this world. More than the prospect of seeing Everest itself, it was in this spirit that we shared, and by which, each footstep was made in front of the last.

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To me, two of the most important things to take on such a long trek, are a really great pair of boots, and a really great trekking companion. To settle for less on either would surely lead to blisters that would torment the entire trip. As I wear USA size 14 shoes, I took extra pains to make sure I found a great pair of boots before I left America. My options were next to nothing in Asia. There certainly was a larger selection of adventurers over here than one might bump into on the street back home, and it would be easier to pair up with a compatible trekker than it would be to find a comfortable pair of trekking boots, but still, I felt supremely grateful and fortunate to have found such a well-matched trekking partner in Adrian.

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Posted by TravelerTyler 00:07 Archived in Nepal Tagged trek trekking everest companion nepal companionship everest_trek Comments (0)

If the Clothes Make the Man, Do they Make the Macaque?

sunny 36 °C

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Renaissance Monkey Photo Copyright (c) 2014 Tyler M. Stevens

Cloaked in a sheet it liberated from a monk's clothesline,
a young rhesus macaque seems to become a renaissance monkey.


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  • This is my entry in the 2014 National Geographic Photo Contest*

http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/photo-contest/2014/entries/299301/view/

Posted by TravelerTyler 11:35 Archived in India Tagged animals monkeys india monkey varanasi macaque renaissance_monkey Comments (0)

An Autumn Leaf in the Spring City Wind

sunny 22 °C

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Today is November 20th, (2012) and I am getting ready to leave China. When I arrived here, in Kunming, nearly two months ago, I had big plans to run around the country visiting all the cool places I have heard about. I even sent out a group email to just about everyone I have an email address for, letting them know that I would soon be going to diverse and exotic destinations like Dali, then Lijiang, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri La, Tibet, and Beijing, with time for some other places I hadn’t mentioned, like Shanghai, and Xi’an. I reinforced the expectations I had built up for myself by telling the story of how awesome my journey would be to all my friends. Two months later, and I am still in Kunming, with no regrets.

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At first it wasn’t like this. From the get-go, I wrote up a 60-day calendar with precise dates to be moving on to the next city or town. I expected to be in Kunming for just one week before leaving for Dali; and though I always give myself some leniency with such plans, I started to feel anxious that I was fooling myself into wasting time, after a week and a half had passed and I still hadn’t bought a bus ticket out of here. I felt it would be very easy to fall behind and not live up to the expectations of my dreams if I didn’t get a move on it soon. And if there was one thing that I want to make sure that I do a great job on, it is living up to my dreams! After all, it is a rare privilege that I have set myself up for, to be able to travel around the world solo for a year, and the last thing I want to do is to squander the precious moments of this dream by not taking opportunities when I have them. They most likely won’t come again in this lifetime – at least, not in the fashion a free-floating solo-traveler would encounter. At 36 years old, it is about time to get serious about building a career and a foundation for a future family. A sense of urgency is built into the mechanics of this trip.

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But as I ticked the days off the calendar, slowly crossing off the week allotted for Dali, then Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge, the one thing that wasn’t truly coming to life was that sense of urgency. I felt I should feel urgent, but it just wasn’t there. My days were spent in writing, deepening my observations about life, and also in walking randomly through Kunming as if following one new spoke of a wheel each day. No single spoke revealed anything all that tremendously different from the rest; not like if I had gone from town to town across the country and had seen an evolution of architecture and food and culture and landscape and people. But what I did see instead, in more clear detail, was the smaller differences from one side of the city to the other. I tasted the same food at different restaurants and gained an appreciation for who served up the best dumplings or chow mien. I slowly came to recognize, and enjoy, the subtle changes in the way Kunming breathes from day to day, from hour to hour, and from minute to minute. I found some hidden gems or moments that no guidebook could offer. I felt more deeply, the life and pulse of the city in ways that I could never have encountered if I had just breezed through from one touristy highlight to the next.

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About three weeks into Kunming, and I let my plans go. I didn’t let them go completely; they were floating at the end of a tether that I could reel in when I needed to, but I let the slack go way out. I could sense that what I needed was to let this trip breathe a bit more, and that firing off with all the precision and passion of a rocketship to the moon would get in the way of trusting the winds to blow me where they needed to – where I needed to go, but didn’t yet know.

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One day, my computer broke – again – and though I tried hard to cling to the inner serenity left over from ten days of meditation in September, thinking I would be better for it, I had to go for a “pissed-off walk” to calm myself down. I walked like a bull in a China city; no longer flowing with the traffic of people and cars, but plowing my way through the crowds and barreling through the pushy swarm of bikes and autos on the streets. I dared them to run me over! It felt a good way to blow off some steam, and it wasn’t until by barging out into the street, I nearly caused lady to fall off her bicycle, that I decided to admit that I was behaving like a bully and that this was unfair to those around me; not to mention, dangerous. In truth, I had been hiding my own bully tendencies away from myself in a dark corner of my mind, pretending I wasn’t like those bad guys who bully people around - that I am a good guy – that the bully tendency is something to be cured and done away with. But on that day, I decided to embrace this darker part of me, in order to handle it responsibly and judiciously. And in doing so, I made some peace with the warriors of the world who use their own bully strengths to push back against the guys bullying their way through the world on selfish and evil purposes. In short, I have long considered the spiritual path to be superior to the warrior’s path, but in this moment, I embraced that they both can work for the greater good.

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The timing of this revelation was divine. I had gone several kilometers on pissed-off steam, into a satellite city, and I found a large park to explore. It would make a good spot to rest for a moment before heading back to the hostel. I like Chinese parks. The gardens are beautifully arranged, and well-maintained. There always seems to be at least one group of old people gathered to play music together. I sat down nearby one such group, and listened, feeling good about the world, and not understanding a word of the songs. I strolled further through the park, seeing men gathered together gambling over a card game or Mahjong. Locals gawked at my singular foreignness, as we walked past each other. Groups of ladies clustered together here and there to dance to China-pop tunes over a portable speakerbox – a common form of social exercise here. Lovers lounged together on the grass. The sun was high in the sky warming my skin, and a light breeze coursed through the trees, cooling me back down. I felt the computer-born concerns melt away. Just as I was about to leave the park, I found one last thing to look at: A monument to the American Hump Pilots and Flying Tigers of World War II that had risked their lives and died, fighting off the Japanese Empire, to protect and liberate China from invasion and foreign domination. My great uncle, Clarence Anderson, was among those airmen.

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The monument was a long wall of sculpted stone depicting different scenes from the war. One showed Chinese workers building an airstrip by dragging gigantic stone rollers to flatten a gravel runway. Another showed the cargo planes being unloaded by workers, after landing with supplies for the war effort. In the center, gathered around, and on one of the Flying Tiger planes, posed a group of American volunteer airmen – smiling in service to their own country and to 1940's China. On the reverse of the wall was another mural, depicting scenes from Kunming life 70 years ago, and a squadron of Flying Tigers scrambling to defend the city. I had no idea the monument was here. It wasn’t in the guidebooks. There was no mention of it that I saw online. I came to Kunming, in part, to learn about and honor the service and sacrifice my uncle made during the war. His plane crashed in Burma, while flying “The Hump” over the Himalayan Range from Assam, India to mainland China, with supplies. He was never heard from again.

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I suppose you could say that his plans overseas changed too, and not in a good way like mine. And yet, seventy years later, his great nephew would be standing serendipitously in front of a monument made partially in his honor, and having just come to peace with his own “inner bully,” would look upon the sculpted airmen and townspeople working side by side to fight back against oppression and annihilation, and for the first time in his life, feel an uncomplicated and unglorified gratitude towards those who fight for good in the wars of this world. I doubt that the weave of the universe was stitched directly so that Clarence would die and that years later, my lesson's unfolding would culminate at this very spot. But indirectly, because he did die in service to China, and my own plans fell apart in Kunming, and my computer broke when I hadn’t bothered to back up data after promising myself that I would, and I stormed off on huff of a pissed-off walk, and embraced my inner bully for the greater good along the way, and because I found, at the apex of the walk, this unknown monument in this park for the Flying Tigers and the Hump Pilots, something magical was allowed to come together that wouldn’t have happened if life had stuck to the plans.

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It is clear to me that the lack of urgency, the computer breaking, the nature of my walk, the fact that I was in Kunming on account of my uncle, and finding this unlisted monument were no mere coincidence. It would seem then, that I am being deliberately moved along on the steps of a master plan by a force greater than myself, in order for this all to come together. But I do not believe that this is actually the case. I do not believe that by surrendering my will to life’s mysterious ways that I am placing myself at the whims of a bully God. After all, no matter how good of an outcome might come by surrendering my will, is it not still be my life to live as I choose? I do not see this moment as a sale-of-soul payoff for giving up on my grand plans to dominate China travel in two months. Instead, I believe that what has happened is that I have allowed myself to move as a leaf in the wind. I am not submitting my will and plans to a dominant force, but have opened my life up to allow things unseen and unknown to find me and connect, through the steps I take, something I would not have done on my own, and yet is exactly what I needed to live through.

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Posted by TravelerTyler 01:00 Archived in China Comments (0)

Strange Birds I Have Seen Over the Last Year in Asia

Or birds doing strange things...


View Around Asia 2011 to ? on TravelerTyler's travel map.

These bird shots tell something about the soul of each place I visited...

Udaipur, India

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Beautiful. Exotic.

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Horrendously polluted.

Lumbini, Nepal

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Crows are everywhere! They are one of the most successful species on the planet from what I have witnessed.

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This crane is one of the rarest birds in the entire world.

Pokhara, Nepal

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A lot of strange birds and odd ducks flock to the shores of Lake Phewa. Literally AND metaphorically speaking.

Everest Region, Nepal
Hardy Souls:

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Very few birds can be found up as high as Everest Base Camp.

And Free Spirits:

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My spirit soared just the same.

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Darjeeling, India

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This beautiful bird is kept in a cage…

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But at least, he isn't stuffed!

Kunming, China

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The Chinese Eat Everything! (I did not.)

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And I found the absence of pigeons and crows in the sky to be disturbing.

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But people flock to see the revered Red-Beaked Seagull when they fly into town in Kunming!

Vietnam

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The Vietnamese keep a bird or three perched outside their business for good luck.

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Some are more creative than others. (And lucky?)

Korea

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I was stuck in the airport all day due to snow, and I made this woodblock phoenix. I wonder when I will return...

Posted by TravelerTyler 21:16 Archived in Vietnam Tagged birds Comments (1)

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